Know where your central equilibrium is. Move around it, up and down its length. Forward and back. Straight, strong, alive, flexible, always regenerating.
I was recently asked about developing a routine for home practice. Most of us are probably used to being given a set of movements to do—one set for everyone. I take a different approach, suggesting that you choose a few moves from among the many that we do in class that appeal to you and remember them at home.
While we share a lot in common, every person is different: different bodies, different circumstances, and different interests, needs and desires. So the routine you develop should be customized to you and not have to be a “one size fits all” approach.
Still, you need a place to begin when you’re new to the system. That’s why I share a system made up of loosening exercises, stretching, single-basic moves, qigong, some standing (called Zhan Zhuang), and tai chi form. This is the context out of which a home practice develops.
I also say that that tai chi is founded upon moving in six directions and in three patterns, or shapes, of movement: up/down, left/right, front/back, and circles, figure 8s, and spirals. This is the foundation of your practice.
To add to that, you begin to cultivate an awareness of the energetic piece of the practice, which brings up the questions of “how” to move in the directions and patterns. What you’re doing with your mind, more specifically.
I begin with the question of, “How do you initiate the move and from which point in the body?” You can begin with the dantian point below the navel and inward about three inches (xia dantian), or the zhong ding (central equilibrium/spine). Remember that the focus of your attention is what you’re working on in any particular moment. With experience you can hold your attention on more than a single thing at a time. The key is to develop a concentration and sustain that concentration. This correlates with the meditative function of tai chi and qigong.
With these ideas you have a foundation to begin your home practice. It takes a little time to get familiar with these concepts, but with some effort it comes together. And with a little help from teacher and fellow practitioners you can build a stronger understanding through group practice and testing.
So pick out a few single moves and practice them at home. You can do a few minutes every day whenever your feel the urge, or remember that you have the chance to make a difference in your condition if you try.
This way you’re doing a more customize practice rather than having to do what the teacher forces on you regardless of your unique situation.
“Whole body moves as single unit” is one of the goals you want to achieve and refine in the practice of tai chi. One way to approach understanding what it is, is to become aware of parts that are not moving and more aware of parts that you are moving already. Usually, we rely on individual parts as substitutes for moving the total body. We reach with only an arm, or bend relying only on the thin muscles of the lower back, instead of positioning the body to take advantage of all the bones, joints, ligaments and tendons. This would reduce the pressure placed on any single part.
How would you know you’re moving the whole body as a single unit unless you feel the parts moving first? Most people don’t feel many, if not most, parts moving. Cultivating this awareness is the function of tai chi movement. In the beginning the focus of your attention would be on choosing a place to begin.
Normally, we start with the Dantian. This corresponds to a point in the body, as well as an area, below the belly button and inward a couple of inches. But the Dantian is also a concept that you can formulate anywhere. It’s not just a place, but also a mental picture. Practicing tai chi can be placing this picture anywhere. You move with this idea in mind.
Another concept called “Central Equilibrium,” or Zhong ding, corresponds to the spine in terms of location; but it too is a concept. While on one hand, it is alignment, which is linear, it’s also equilibrium in relation to one’s surroundings, as well as to the parts that make up the whole. This is a similar relationship as the Dantian—how the parts relate to the whole. How they function in unison to form a whole.
The Dantian and Zhong ding work in unison to produce whole body movement. In the beginning, you focus on moving from a specific point and aim to coordinate movement of parts in terms of speed and timing. For example, moving the arms in harmony with breath. Inhale (or exhale) and raise the arms to shoulder height in front of you, as in the first move of the form. Time the move so that the breath initiates the move and completes at the same time the movement completes. Exhale and drop arms to the side with same coordinated timing. Pretty simple, huh?
This practice is good for novices because of its simplicity. It is limited, however, because it’s focusing only a section of the body, not the body as a whole. You can go beyond and tap into coordinating the movement of energy (Qi) itself with movement of the body as a whole. This can be attained by a similar method as that described above. The difference is by focusing on a specific activity initiated from a specific locus, the rest of the body settles into harmony—the motion of the parts become the sum of the whole in motion. Kind of interesting, plus it feels pretty good when you recognize it’s happening.
Tai chi is all about change on several levels. Change is easier for some than for others. How can you make it easier for yourself? In tai chi, you can pinpoint how. It’s a matter of simply moving differently from what you are accustomed to. Visualize the parts of the body and see them move. Feel them and how they move. Describe to yourself what they are doing as they move one way or another.
Here are some things to put into play when you practice. Focus on a specific manner of movement, such as direction, speed, pressure, rhythm, range of motion, where movement occurs, and from where it originates, which is super important.
The transition from one direction of travel to another is a key moment in the move. How you do that affects the other features of your effort. Range of motion involves whether your movement is limited or hindered, or over-extended. The shape of the move is about how round or how linear. Which is preferable?
What is the pattern of the motion—is it smooth, stuttered, hesitant, performed with abandon, or guarded?
Pay attention to these features of practice and note how they manifest in your practice in order to help understand more about their effectiveness. Tai chi is not just about memorizing a sequence of postures and transitions. It is, more deeply, about how you perform the movement. It is this deeper, internal awareness and ability that you can apply to other facets of life to improve and enhance them.
Stand in Wu Ji (Instructions are found in an earlier post). Simply focus your attention on your sacrum where your tailbone is located and move that in the shape of a figure 8 while holding your spine straight and even. Don’t sway, just shift the tailbone/sacrum/hips in a figure 8 while standing in Wu Ji. See how long you can focus your mind on the sacrum while doing the move. Allow the arms to hang loosely and sway in response to the turning of the tailbone and spine. The legs stay in position and spiral up and down. The spiraling stays close to the bone alignment or central equilibrium.
Wu Ji is the first position in the form or before doing anything in Tai Chi or Qigong. The first thing to do is find your Zhong Ding, your central alignment. Your ears are over the shoulders, which are in line with the hips, which are in line with the knees and ankles and the “Bubbling Well” (Yongquan). You will probably have to bend the knees to get there and maybe tilt the pelvis. This physical alignment is only part of Wu Ji. A place to begin to train your attention.
Next is to become aware of tension, clenching, torqued parts of your body. Release that tension if you can. Keep in mind that tai chi movement itself is the way to release tension and relax the stress points. It’s a gradual process of letting go, coaxing your body and your mind to cooperate to relax and move smoothly with a flowing motion.
How you adjust your alignment can determine how the qi flows through your body, even that it can, and whether or not it does. However, Qi can flow through despite the alignment of the physical. This potential suggests that the mind is the key determining factor in whether or not qi flows through the body, despite physical structure. You could be bent over from illness and still feel and direct the qi.
These two approaches are both valid, I think. You can contemplate doing either according to your nature, or constitution.
Qi moves to a point in the body to where you direct your mind, such as the hamstrings or sacrum, or anywhere.
Qi flows linearly and sequences through the body like the old analogy of a string of pearls. Practicing the small circuit qigong is a good way to see this and intend it in movement practice. You can see it rising from the bubbling well, up through the muscle and fascia of the legs into the hip assembly. This tends to straighten the posture. If you fight against the rising—you’ll crumple, collapse, or bind up. The qi won’t flow. This points to resistance within yourself as a reluctance to let go. The qi makes you aware of why you’re holding in the the first place.
We have to come to some clarity about this—that we hold on and are afraid to let go and that fear of qi is not the problem. Qi is a healing force, nothing to fear at all. It’s often fear held for a long time after surviving a physical or emotional trauma that doesn’t completely resolve and remains lodged—dormant. After so much of our lives have passed, does it matter how it came to be? Isn’t the important thing to realize we’re holding back and that it’s okay to let go and let the energy flow through? Resistance, or fighting against one’s own self, is very tiring physically and mentally. Wouldn’t it be nice to let it all go and trust that your are made of whatever it takes to move through life without falling down, or apart?
Major sticking points are the hips, waist and neck. If you could move qi all the way from the earth through the bai wei (top of head), something in these places would have to open up and let it pass. If you learn to adjust the position of them (zhong ding alignment), qi could suddenly flow through, and probably would.
When the qi enters the thighs, for example, it fills the thigh, causing it to expand similarly to how the lungs expand when they fill with air. So it doesn’t just flow linearly. You feel energy through the smallest areas of the membrane, as well as the larger. It’s as if it even expands out of the flesh into the space just beyond the body. It wants to flow, so you allow it to go up and it enters and fills the hips changing its position, maybe tilting the pelvis down and forward and up a little, then rising up the spine readjusting the vertebrae. You either let this happen or you don’t. I prefer letting it happen, but for a long time I fought against it, unaware I was doing it.
This tendency reminds me of absentmindedly thinking about something or someone while I’m performing some mundane task such as pulling weeds, taking a walk, or reading or talking to another person. I don’t seem to realize I’m doing it and yet there I am doing it. Then suddenly like waking from a frightful dream I jump awake and realize I had been in absentminded reverie while my physical body was involved in some activity I barely noticed I was doing.
Sometimes, it’s the other way around. My focus was on something else like thinking in a dream. You’re thinking, it affects your behavior or what you feel about what you’re witnessing and yet you’re not aware of doing it. It is very common.
Sometimes you lose the continuity in the flow. It breaks, like cutting a taut string. This is not resistance to the self, rather a sort of losing yourself and not knowing how to reconnect to the activity. This is associated with skipping the attention from one place to another that is not directly connected. This is breaking mental concentration and reducing your attention on deeper levels of the body.
Another place of holding qi is the diaphragm. This holding is subtler than the other parts. It stems from how we breathe. The diaphragm hardens from breathing abdominally, but not allowing the air/qi to pass into the lower lung, then on into the upper chest. If you breathe more fully, the diaphragm can soften and become more pliable and changeable. It will function more efficiently and its range of motion will expand to its real capabilities.
As you practice you may, probably will, become cognizant of tightness in the lower back and/or the psoas muscle. The rope-like muscles along the lower spine may also feel quite hard to the touch.
We can go on into greater detail, but this is a good place to begin to gain clarity on the practice of Wu Ji in Tai Chi. It much more than merely standing up straight, rather it’s a whole state of being aware of what’s going on without increasing tension in the mind-body relationship.
Gentle movements produce more exercise than you might think
“According to research, taking tai chi in small groups for a dozen weeks two to three times a week reduces falls up to 55 percent.”
“Instructor Brenda Michaelis likes tai chi because it works your entire body. ‘You don’t realize you’re exercising, and it’s good for your spirit as well as your body,’ she said.”
“You want to change the world? Change yourself.” My Chinese martial arts teacher, George Xu, told me that once. Of course, I already knew that, but it’s always good to be reminded. You can’t get enough reminding, especially in the midst of living under the barrage that is this world in this time. Not that I think I can change the world, but I am interested in changing myself.
I’ve read also in a wellness course I’m taking that “all change is self-change.” For me, tai chi and qigong certainly are tools for self-change. I began my practice for that reason, although it wasn’t foremost in my mind. I was taking a chance that it would help to solve a health problem. It was a desperate act of hope to alter an illness. It’s that way for many practitioners—deciding on tai chi to correct an affliction or to prevent problems in the future without really knowing if it will work.
You have to trust in your intuition, more or less. It’s not always clear how to change or what to change at first. We can know such new and unfamiliar modalities, that really are only hearsay at first, only by doing them. We might fear that they won’t work and we will have lost time and money, but we have to trust something, so we engage them, uncertain of the outcomes.
Isn’t that true all the time anyway? You can either trust others or yourself. Doctors, healers, priests, ministers, shamans, tai chi teachers, all come and go, and in the end you still have yourself. All these have value if placed correctly, but tai chi and qigong give you the wheel and allow you to do something about your health for yourself. We have in the end, and in the beginning as well, only our own best judgment to go on and act on the hope for fruitful outcomes and solved problems.
Know where your central equilibrium is. Move around it, up and down its length. Forward and back. Straight, strong, alive. Flexible, always regenerating.